As President Trump’s often disturbing descriptions of people and events constantly remind us, the words we choose to use in everyday parlance matter. Words have a meaningful social and psychological impact. They can change our lives, help shape our ideas, and reinforce shared beliefs – no matter how glaringly prejudiced they may be when viewed objectively.
“Dog” is the go-to word for this president to describe someone he doesn’t like. He’s hurled it at, among many others, political commentators from Chuck Todd to Glenn Beck and even used it on the actress Kristen Stewart, who was 22 years old at the time.
While many people have accurately pointed out that the president’s most recent use of “dog”, in relation to Omarosa Manigault Newman in August, was either racist, sexist, or both, there’s no doubt in my mind that it was speciesist.
Non-human members of the animal kingdom regularly find themselves the target of our derogatory language.
It’s not only dogs. Take the name of any species and apply it to a human, and almost every single time the non-human comes off looking worse. Would you want to be called a pig, a whale, a chicken, a snake, a weasel, or a rat?
Never mind that people who have spent time around pigs often compare them to dogs because they’re so social, playful, and protective, that whales are some of the most majestic animals on the planet, and chickens have personalities as varied and distinct as those of humans.
Ball pythons are easy-going, docile, and even sweet, while weasels are bold and clever. And rats are among the most empathetic of all animals, often much more so than humans; rats will save stranger rats from drowning even if that means they have to give up their food (which makes them arguably far more empathetic than the humans who put them through such abusive experiments).
We describe someone who is out of control, aggressive, or violent as acting “like an animal.” But humans are the only animals who wage war against other members of their own species.
The speciesism baked-in to our linguistic thought means we often refer to an animal not as “she” or “he,” but as “it,” the same pronoun that we would use to refer to an item of furniture. Even people who have beloved animal companions may refer to themselves as “owners,” implying that the animals are no different from any other piece of property.
Referring to, and thus thinking of, animals not as sentient beings who have relationships, personalities, and emotions but rather as inanimate objects enables humans to justify subjugating and using them in any way they see fit.
It fuels the disconnect that allows people to declare themselves “animal-lovers” even as they order chicken nuggets at a drive-through from the leather seat of their car, on their way to the circus where animals are enslaved, abused, and forced to perform, all while wearing cosmetics that were tested on animals.
As Jonathan Safran Foer writes about food labelling in his book Eating Animals: “words are as often used to misdirect and camouflage as they are to communicate. Some words, like veal, help us forget what we are actually talking about. Some, like free-range, can mislead those whose consciences seek clarification. Some, like happy, mean the opposite of what they would seem. And some, like natural, mean next to nothing.”
In modern parlance, animals are no longer “slaughtered.” They are “processed” or even “dispatched” as if they were embarking on a Caribbean sunset cruise.
The language we use changes how we think, and speciesist language also allows us to trivialise cruelty to animals in our day-to-day speech. Most of us would never support dog fighting, but we use the phrase, “I have a dog in that fight.” While hopefully we would never “beat a dead horse” or “kill two birds with one stone,” our language suggests otherwise.
As people have come to realise the power of words, we have worked hard to eliminate hate-speech and the prejudices that usually accompany it, including sexism, racism and bigotry. It’s time that we recognised the devastating effects of speciesism and worked to counteract it – and the sloppy language that fuels it.
So, I’m proposing a linguistic revolution.
Instead of “pet,” say “animal companion” so as to reflect the true value of an animal’s friendship instead of trivialising it. Instead of referring to someone as a “guinea pig” or “lab rat,” use “test subject,” so that violence toward other species will stop being normalised.
Instead of “killing two birds with one stone,” try saying “feed two birds with one scone.” Don’t grab the “bull by the horns”, instead take the “flower by the thorns.” And you won’t send any mixed signals when you say that “there’s more than one way to peel a potato”, rather than the horrific “more than one way to skin a cat.”
If we continue to think of ourselves as gods while treating non-human animals as toys or chattel, then we devalue and misunderstand them, and the consequences of that are more animal exploitation, pain, and suffering. Words have the power to change lives – both human and non-human. We should let them.
Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).